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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Belated apologies to Gerald Ford and Abigail Evans

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 7, 2012 - It seems appropriate to usher in the second term of the Obama presidency by apologizing. After all, the president’s detractors have often criticized his apparent lack of hubris in dealing with foreign leaders — reasoning, I suppose, that commanding the world’s dominant military should mean you never have to say you’re sorry. We accidentally blew up your house? Tough break, baby, we’ll send you a check.

In keeping with the contrite spirit of the present administration, allow me to begin by offering a long overdue — and regrettably, posthumous — apology to Gerald Ford.

Ford, you’ll recall, was appointed vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned the post to answer criminal charges in his home state of Maryland. After Nixon abdicated rather than face impeachment, Ford ascended to the presidency and thus became the only man to serve as chief executive who had never won a national election. He was a U.S. representative from Michigan who made his way to the White House without the inconvenience of campaigning for the occupancy permit.

When he finally stood for election in 1976, I voted against him although I thought he’d done an admirable job under the circumstances. He was a likeable and decent man who managed to restore credibility to the office after the tainted reign of his predecessor. His only major shortcoming was a propensity to fall out of helicopters, but that failing wasn’t critical because he usually waited until the craft had landed.

Despite my favorable regard for Ford as man and president, I cast my ballot for Jimmy Carter because Ford had pardoned Nixon. Given the moral certitude of youth, I found that arrangement a bit too cozy to pass the smell test. Nixon appoints Ford; Ford pardons Nixon. I felt that history should record that we threw the bums out…

Looking back at Ford’s decision, I realize that the current edition of me would have made the same choice he did. The nation was reeling from the back-to-back body blows of Vietnam and Watergate, and there was still a very real Cold War to wage. No thinking patriot would have subjected his country to the further distraction that the criminal prosecution of a former president would entail. Besides, the deposed Nixon wasn’t much of a threat to recidivate.

In the event, Carter proved to be an ineffectual leader and 1980 found me voting for Ronald Reagan. Sorry, Mr. Ford, if I could travel back in time, you’d get one more vote out of the Show-Me State.

Ford didn’t carry Missouri in ’76 but his modern counterpart, Mitt Romney, didn’t even have to campaign here to capture the state’s cache of electoral votes. On a national map composed of 50 shades of red and blue, Missouri trends increasingly toward deep crimson in presidential politics.

And we are hardly unique in our ideological commitment. Of the 538 votes in the Electoral College, about 281 were basically out of play one way or the other before the nominating conventions were held. Those were the states that knew the answer before they were asked the question.

Another 111 Electoral College votes quickly aligned behind a given candidate and, absent a Todd Akin-like episode, could be comfortably relied upon to stay in rank. That left 146 votes at issue. The hapless souls in the so-called “toss-up states” were thus bombarded with approximately $2 billion in negative advertising intermingled with self-aggrandizing propaganda.

One can only imagine that the besieged citizens of swing states found themselves longing for the good old days when Gerald Ford ascended to the presidency without the annoyance of an election. Their plight was best typified by 4-year-old Abigail Evans, the Colorado tyke who became an overnight internet sensation because of a video taken after a long car ride during which her mother had listened to NPR. When asked why she was crying, the sobbing child responded that she was tired of hearing about “Bronco Bama and Mitt Rommy.”

Though it was suspiciously coincidental that Mom just happened to have a camera handy to record her daughter’s angst, the poor kid probably wasn’t alone in her despair…

For all the sound and fury of a campaign that lasted the better part of two years, the ultimate decision came down to a relative few who were called upon to choose between two contenders. Issues and policies notwithstanding, I suspect most of the middle-of-the-road electorate made their choice based on their best estimate of each man’s character.

Romney’s finest hour came during the first debate. Though much of what he said that night was a direct refutation of the “severely conservative” cloak he’d donned for the primary season, he came across as genuine.

He reminded me of John McCain giving his concession speech in 2008. At that time, I remember thinking, “Where has this guy been”? McCain had spent the preceding months impersonating Dr. Strangelove on the campaign trail but once relieved of the pretense of his candidacy, his manner was transformed and his commentary became thoughtful and reflective. Similarly, Romney seemed comfortable within his own skin when allowed to vent his more moderate inclinations.

For his part, Obama’s star shone most brightly when he responded to the crisis generated by Hurricane Sandy. Cool, competent and concerned, he managed to remind voters that the federal government might have some practical utility after all.

With another divisive exercise in democracy behind us, and with appropriate apologies duly rendered, we now unite as one people to boldly confront the daunting challenges that await us. Or not.

M.W. Guzy is a retired police officer who is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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